Diagnosis of Meningitis

Immediate medical attention is necessary for a prompt diagnosis of meningitis when symptoms are observed. It is advisable to attend the emergency department rather than wait for an appointment at the doctor’s office as meningitis symptoms may progress rapidly and require urgent treatment. Fever, headaches, neck stiffness, abnormal sleepiness and cognitive alterations such as somebody talking gibberish are some of the symptoms of meningitis. If unable to acquire transport to the hospital it is advisable to call out the emergency services, particularly in a case where a child is having difficulty remaining conscious and has stiffness of the neck and body. If seizures are occurring, dial 911 immediately for assistance as the quick commencement of antibiotic treatment can decrease the risk of fatality or serious physical impairment from the disease.

Spinal Tap Meningitis Diagnosis

Spinal Tap for Meningitit Diagnosis

The patient will usually be isolated after being recognized as a potential case of meningitis so as to protect other patients and hospital staff. A physical examination will take place where the doctor will check for labored breathing or blood pressure problems. Taking detailed notes on symptoms, intensity, duration and onset will help the physician to evaluate the need for further tests. If the doctor suspects the presence of bacterial meningitis then they are likely to immediately commence antibiotic treatment whilst continuing the evaluation. The physician usually conducts a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to extract spinal fluid and test it for signs of infection and inflammation. This is the only way of accurately ascertaining the presence of meningitis but may have to wait if the patient is too sick for the procedure, which can be uncomfortable but not usually painful; antibiotics will be given due to the suspicion of meningitis at this point. The results from this test can take a few hours to process, with blood tests for red and white blood cell counts being conducted in the meantime. A CT scan may be performed to check for infection in the brain, any swelling or the presence of an abscess. If breathing appears problematic then a chest x-ray may be carried out in order to check for pneumonia or fluid in the lungs.

Spinal Tap Procedure

A spinal tap is conducted as the patient lies on one side and an anaesthetic is injected locally in the lower back to numb the area. A small needle is then carefully inserted into the area of the spinal column that contains the cerebrospinal fluid. This can be an uncomfortable procedure but is normally not painful. Although the procedure may appear scary there are normally no complications, with some patients experiencing a mild headache after the procedure and very rarely an infection occurring. The fluid is analyzed for the presence of white and red blood cells, protein, and glucose. Results will show whether either viral or bacterial meningitis are present in the system. If tests are inconclusive but the condition continues to progress then a further spinal tap may be conducted after 24-48 hours to ensure an accurate diagnosis.

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Last Updated: 10/10/2010